For a Wisconsin boy, not previously experiencing what I experienced this past Thursday borders on criminal.
It’s something I always wanted to do, but for whatever reason (work and before that, getting ready for school as well as my parents both working) I never got around to doing it. This year however, after an extended NFL lockout, I decided I needed to do this……just a month shy of my 28th birthday.
I decided to attend a Green Bay Packers training camp practice.
I have outgrown the age where Packers players could ride my bike. Well, I don’t even have a bike but if I did I’d still be over the age limit. So instead I packed up the car and decided to make the trip to Green Bay alone for Thursday night practice.
It was a trip that almost never even left the driveway.
As I sat down in my 2005 Cavalier, I tried to start the car only to be greeted by chugging and sputtering. I thought to myself, “This can’t be happening. You are going to your first Packer practice about 20 years overdue and your car decides to take a dump. Unreal.”
However, much like the 2010 Packers, a little adversity was not going to get in the way of my ultimate goal. I was going to be there for 7:00 practice if I had to hitchhike my way there.
Thankfully, the repair shop had a loaner, a 2001 Buick Regal with 150,000 miles on it that I could use until Monday when my car would be repaired. Sold.
At about 3:30, I arrived at Lambeau Field. With some time to kill before gates to practice opened, I decided to go through the Packers Hall of Fame and browse the Pro Shop. If there is anyone reading this that has not yet been to Lambeau since the renovations, you need to get your tail to Green Bay. There is so much history in that building you get chills. I go through it a lot and never tire of it.
Anyway, I head over to Ray Nitschke Field around 5:10 and see a lot of people already lined up at the gate. My first thought was that these people must be starved for football due to the long lockout, but then a reality check hit me. This is Green Bay, Titletown USA. What I’m witnessing is normal. It’s cool to see this many people turn out for a practice.
Walking into Ray Nitschke Field, the music played over the speakers breaks out into the “Go Pack Go!” chant that you hear at Lambeau on game days. A grin and even a slight tear came to my eyes as I finally realized, “The lockout is over. We have football. THERE.IS. FOOTBALL!”
My emotions eventually subsided and I sat down on the bleachers around 5:30, an hour and a half before practice began. At this point, all you do is people watch. A lot of kids in attendance. I began thinking back to how much fun my dad and I could have had at one of these back in the day.
I make a mental note that come hell or high water that one day I will bring my own children to a practice and pass on to the next generation what was passed on to me—attending a Green Bay Packers practice.
Players begin trickling in around 6:40. I had to keep double checking my roster to see who players were with some numbers being reassigned. It definitely felt weird to see#56 on the field and NOT have it be Nick Barnett. The first “big” name I see is Clay Matthews and I must say his hair is even more impressive in person.
At 7:00 Lombardi time, the horn is sounded and the Packers began their stretches.
I won’t go into every detail of the practice. See my Game Balls and Lame Calls post for more on that.
Instead, I’ll just share with you some of the things that make attending a Packers practice a truly unique and special experience. First was how addicting the sound of pads colliding that close to you can be. It honestly is one of the sweetest sounds I have ever heard.
Another was calm all the players were. The first week of camp usually sees a fight or two but the atmosphere at this Packers practice was very laid back. Players gave maximum effort but the mood was a very professional one. No one was trying to kill each other despite multiple roster spots hanging in the balance.
The biggest image from the sideline that stuck out to me was right in front of me. A small boy, maybe five or six years old, and his father taking in a Packers practice. While the dad was trying to explain to his son everything happening on the field, the boy seemed more interested in the sign that stated the number of the down. He got real excited when 1 would become 2 and so forth. He asked his dad how high it went, his dad said four. The boy seemed surprised by this and said “I thought it went up to a thousand!”
Sometimes kids say the darndest things.
Aside from game day at Lambeau Field, nothing beats taking in a Packers practice on a clear summer night surrounded by over a thousand of your Cheesehead brethren.
Practice ended around 9:15 and as I exited Ray Nitschke field, a staff member said, “Thank you. Please come again.” I kind of laughed and thought, “We’re Packers fans. We ALWAYS come back.”
On my way back to my car, I see Mason Crosby riding a kid’s bike with the kid in tow. It was literally just the three of us on that road at that moment. I don’t ask Crosby for an autograph, nor do I attempt to take a picture.
Instead, I yell to Crosby, “Hey Mason! Good to have you back!” Crosby was scheduled to be a free agent until the Packers signed him to a new deal. Crosby yells back, “Thanks man! Great to be back!”
I chuckle to myself the remainder of the way to my vehicle. “Only in Green Bay,” I say out loud to no one in particular.
Only in that one special place, home to that one special team.
Only in Green Bay
Kris Burke is a sports writer covering the Green Bay Packers for AllGreenBayPackers.com and WTMJ in Milwaukee. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) and his work has been linked to by sites such as National Football Post and CBSSports.com. Follow @KrisLBurke